Although what we use to call the ”Paris” version of Wagner’s Tannhäuser is usually seen as stylistically uneven in comparison to a more homogeneous ”Dresden” version, I have no doubt in my preference for the ballet music and a more ambitious Venusberg scene. Does it makes some of act 2 seem too well-behaved? Well, it does – but this is too small a price to pay for the more sensuous and sophisticated music Wagner wrote later – and the Royal Opera House made the right decision in opting for it. The problem is that the more complex Venusberg scene requires a difficult choreography for the bacchanale and a more psychologally elaborate character development for both Venus and Tannhäuser. And I do not believe that the Royal Opera House could provide that in its new staging.
Tim Albery’s nondescript production probably tried not to displease anyone and ended on not pleasing anyone. The liberties taken with the libretto and its stylized visuals suggest a Regie staging, but it does not bring any kind of ”reading” to the story. The Royal Opera House program publishes some texts about artists and excesses and about ”gated communities”, but their relation to the staging is more hinted at then intimately related to it. The sets are basically variations on the theme of the Royal Opera House curtains. They are in perfect shape at the Venusberg, are replaced by a tree to depict the fields where Tannhäuser sees the pilgrims, then they return as partially ruined for act 2 and are finally shown as entirely ruined in act 3. I can remember these ideas from a couple of productions I have seen this year – Stefan Herheim’s Parsifal for Bayreuth, for example. However, if Albery found inspiration in Herheim, he limited it to the sceneries. I could not find a coherent approach in this Tannhäuser other than what clearly meant in Wagner’s libretto. The shepherd as a projection of the young Tannhäuser – that could be interesting, but it comes and goes without further development (and I guess I have seen that in Herheim’s Parsifal too…). Showing the Landgraf’s noble guests as a ”gated community”-meeting of armed vigilantes seems a pointless inference when Venus is seen a vamp in a sexy gown purring on a white bed (both in acts 1 and 3), Elisabeth as a girl in white lace and a veil, Tannhäuser as a guy in a suit and Wolfram as… another guy in a suit. Someone should have explained the director that he could have chosen a traditional staging if he had no ideas to add to Wagner’s well-conceived ones.
Semyon Bychkov knows his Tannhäuser and was able to find the right atmosphere for every scene: the warm tonal palette and flexible tempo for the Venusberg scene, the large scale and depth of sound for the pilgrims, the quicksilvery excitement for the hunting party, the grandeur for the arrival of the guests, the Innigkeit for Elisabeth’s prayer and Wolfram’s song. The Royal Opera House’s hardly belongs to the world’s leading Wagnerian orchestras – more blunders in the brass section than one would expect, poorly synched chorus, some dangerously messy ensembles and noticeably hard-working violins in fast divisions did not entirely spoil the show, but one wonders what the conductor would do with a truly world-class formation.
Although Eva Maria Westbroek is admirably full-toned, Elisabeth is definitely not her role. She sounds too mature, lacks purity of tone in lyrical episodes, is often tested when softer dynamics are required and is ill-at-ease handling delicate feelings (her prayer came through as rather gutsy than touching). Michaela Schuster surprised me with the warmth and sexiness she could inject in her singing, but the role – as often in this repertoire – takes her too her limits and many exposed high notes were cut short rather than rounded out. I have enjoyed Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram less than probably everybody else. Although his voice is intrinsically beautiful, I find his phrasing lacking legato and often inclined almost to parlando, the tone too open and metallic now and then and the interpretation more studied than expressive. Compared to most baritones who tackle the role, it is of course an elegant performance – but I wouldn’t say that he was the shining feature of this performance. Christof Fischesser was a reliable Landgraf, producing focused low notes. Pity he seemed to be not really concentrated this evening.
Johan Botha’s physique and lack of stage presence may be for some too much to put up with, but if you like Wagnerian singing, you should listen to his healthily sung Tannhäuser. While most tenors in this role have a baritonal quality and become increasingly strained during the performance, this South-African tenor has an unending supply of powerful top notes and is entirely at ease with the somewhat angular writing. His voice has a spontaneous, bright-toned quality that flashes rather than climb through a Wagnerian phrasing. The results are unusually polished and musicianly. He is not an electrifying performer, but offered a particularly moving account of the Rome Narration and sounded really sincere in his sorrow on listening about Elisabeth’s death in the end of the opera.